They say never get into an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel. That kind of sage wisdom might save you from a public spat with The New York Times, but this model works a bit different. Each year, I employ trillions of pixels to make my argument for the player that I feel the Washington Redskins should draft. Feel free to argue with me on it--I have plenty more pixels at my disposal, but more importantly, I am seldom right.
Last year, I stood on my soapbox (actually, I was standing on a crushed, empty carton that a bar of soap was removed from in my basement at three o'clock in the morning and literally nobody was within 500 feet of me) and demanded that the Redskins draft Brandon Scherff. Nobody was more surprised than me when they actually did that, and so now I am feeling a little pressure to get this right.
I don't always get my way (though, in recent years, all I have really asked for is offensive linemen at the top of the draft). I try to put a little thought into the player we need to get and why, and today, I ask you all to consider the case for Ryan Kelly, the center from Alabama.
First, let's address the fact that the Redskins just used a first-round draft pick on the offensive line. This absolutely does not preclude the selection of another offensive lineman in the first--there are FIVE starters there, and they are all pretty damn important positions. We wouldn't be drafting a backup, in other words.
Many people believe in the "strength up the middle" philosophy in modern football, although it would be also true that everyone wants strength at every position. Center, running back, middle linebacker, nose and safety are positions where I believe you want to be strongest. Every play starts in the middle. Size and strength up and down the center of the field matters (no matter what she tells you).
The center touches the ball on every single offensive play. If you're fortunate to have the right guy, he is responsible for the rest of his linemates, calling out protection and movement tweaks based on what he sees from the defense. While edge rushers get all or most of the pub, gritty nose tackles and punchy interior defensive linemen are often the meanest and nastiest players on the field for the defense. They have to be met with equal nastiness, and the center has to be the guy to do it. Ryan Kelly is noted for his grit, toughness and fight. At Alabama, you have to believe there is an emphasis placed on both physical and mental toughness. After all, those offensive linemen are battling SEC monsters each week, and I seem to recall seeing SEC defensive linemen being drafted at the top of the draft...constantly.
We know that Jay Gruden prefers big, strong linemen (for his football team). Both he and McLovin prefer size to the smaller, more agile linemen that some offensive schemes require. We saw our o-line take a big step forward in that department last year when Morgan Moses and Brandon Scherff reinvented the right side. While Kory Lichtensteiger is a serviceable pro, Ryan Kelly is bigger, and his ceiling is likely higher. At 6'4", 311 pounds, Kelly is a monster at the center position.
Size and strength are important, but that is just the beginning. What about adding a national title out of college, a 2015 Rimington Trophy (given out to the nation's best collegiate center), and a share of the 2015 Jacobs Blocking Trophy? That last one is interesting because it is given out in each of five conferences to the player considered the best blocker. I'm pretty sure that when you are recognized as one of the best blockers in the SEC, that is really saying something.
Pro Football Focus calls him a "mauler that went up against top competition in the SEC." They also noted that he is "almost never taken into the backfield." This seems important.
At this point, since we have mentioned Kory Lichtensteiger, we should also bring up Spencer Long, Josh LeRibeus and Austin Reiter. All of these players either can play center now, or will work at the position this summer. I totally get people love Reiter's potential. As a huge Spencer Long fan myself, I understand why people are high on his chances to lock down the center position in camp. LeRibeus continues to get chances, and he has experience. Kory is Kory. With regard to the evolution of our offense, I am in favor of upgrading our center position to the kind of player that you can pencil in for a decade--maybe even the kind of player you pencil into Pro Bowl discussions for a decade. We'd all love to see one of our guys rise to that level, but more often than not, the only way you get there is with a center from the top of the draft (think Nick Mangold, Maurkice Pouncey, Alex Mack). Ryan Kelly is said to be pro-ready. He is said to be one of the surest bets in the bottom of the first round. I can't find anyone who is writing that he won't start right away for the team that drafts him. Simply put--again--his ceiling is higher than anyone we have on staff already. (I would much rather see Spencer Long materialize as our starting left guard, but that might be a tough order.)
We can't talk about who we are drafting in the first round without talking about defensive linemen--where the strength of this draft reportedly rests. It also happens to be a need for the Redskins. I won't be too disappointed if we go that route, but I have been made to believe (by our very own Steve Shoup, Aaron Lesher and Gabe Ward) that we can find a starting defensive tackle in the second round. If that is true, we can lock down two starters at critical positions in the trenches in the first two rounds, while also nabbing the best available center. (I guess a counterpoint could be going the other way, and plucking Nick Martin in the second round...)
Alabama's official site reports that Ryan Kelly did not allow a sack all season. In fact, they said he was responsible for only four hurries. In the run game, he only led the blocking for the running back who broke rushing records held by Herschel Walker. You know...Derrick Henry...the Heisman Trophy winner!
Finally, I would like to argue that investing in the best center out of the draft is an investment in the quarterback position. We have seen Kirk Cousins develop into a fine pro player (with plenty more upside), but his longevity and ability to continue to get better will be driven in part by the play in front of him on the line. Giving him a sure bet at center to develop alongside (or behind, as it were), is a long-term investment in everything we want to accomplish on offense. I am not saying we should be hell bent on recreating the Manning/Saturday tandem, but I am saying that the quarterback/center battery is significant. It is perfect timing to partner a young passer that has a full year under his belt with a center that is ready to come in and handle the job. (I suppose you could make a similar point using Long or Reiter, but neither of those two has the chops that Ryan Kelly already has at the position.)
I appreciate your willingness to listen to my case for Ryan Kelly. As you all know, I stand ready to cheer whomever McLovin decides to add to our roster in the first round. While I will be listening for this name, regardless of what name I hear, I am confident our team will be made exponentially better.